Coyote in Afghanistan

A Coyote armoured vehicle on patrol near Kandahar Airfield.


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360. Scapegoats
by Michael Scott
I liked the idea of this look at 13 cases of military injustice written by a retired commander of the Army in Scotland. So, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't as good as it could have been. I wondered if retired Major General Scott himself has an axe to grind and was trying to make some kind of a point when he wrote the book - perhaps to do with his own command of the 2nd Scots Guards during the Falklands War. Some of the supposed victims of injustice didn't seem particularly hard done by. The military is just as, if not more, prone to petty jealousy and workplace intrigue as most jobs on civvie street - though two of Scott's victims were executed, so the consequences of injustice can be far more serious than simply not getting a well-deserved promotion. Some of Scott's attempts to give background to the cases were plodding and not always easy to follow. I'm not sure if Scott preferred a well turned phrase to accurate analysis when he said all Americans were united against the British during the American War of Independence. He fails to mention that Major General William Erskine was certifiably insane and that might have helped understand the circumstances surrounding the 1811 scapegoating and suicide of Lt.-Col. Charles Bevan. The disturbances at the notorious Etaples reinforcement depot in 1917 might have been more understandable of Scott had explained that Military Policeman Harry Reeve did more than fire two or three shots over the heads of a crowd of soldiers. He put a bullet in the head of Cpl. William Wood of the 4th Gordon Highlanders and many soldiers believed he did it deliberately. And I'm not sure of how hard Scott tried to track down relatives of Lance Corporal Jesse Short, who was executed for mutiny days after events at Etaples. The family may have been able to comment on some of Scott's speculations regarding Short. 

359. Business in Great Waters
by John Terraine
Better known as a historian of the First World War, John Terraine takes a sober and sombre view of U-Boat warfare in both World Wars. He starts his sorry tale in 1916 when Imperial Germany first went for broke in imposing an economic blockade of the United Kingdom through the application of unrestricted submarine warfare. A wiser man than I said wars are often won by the side which makes the fewest mistakes and the U-boat campaigns are an excellent illustration of this. Terraine weaves together the various and varied strands in what appears to be a very well researched piece of work. One of the most striking features is how close the Royal Air Force came to losing the Second World War by failing to realise the value of air cover for the Atlantic convoys, and perhaps even the importance of the convoys, and instead insisting that Germany could only be defeated through strategic bombing. The Royal Navy failed to recognise the lessons of the First World War and had to relearn most of them, at an appalling cost in human lives, over several years. Lucklily, the dysfunctional Nazi regime self-sabotaged its own best chance of bringing Britain to its knees. knees. Terraine gives just about enough attention to the experiences of the sailors, aircrew and submariners to keep the reader engaged but casts his net wide to include technology, signals intelligence, command and control, overall strategy, inter-allied relations and sensitivities,  and even personality issues. This is an excellent account of one of the most complex and crucial campaigns in modern warfare. 

358. Rogue Heroes
by Ben Macintyre
Ben Macintyre is a skilled and good writer; he won our 2016 Book of the Year Award. But this history of the Special Air Service during the Second World War is not his best work. I had the chance to pick up a copy last Christmas at a bargain price but something made me hang back. I then saw the lacklustre TV series based on the book in which Macintyre seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time wearing a natty leather jacket and driving around in a jeep. But it didn't seem fair to hold a disappointing TV outing against a book. So, when I spotted Rogue Heroes at the local library I thought I'd give it a chance. The book is based on the SAS's own records. Sadly, it would appear that there isn't much in those records that hasn't already been uncovered by the legions of writers and former members of the regiment who have already delved into the SAS's record during the Second World War. Basically, if you've never read a book on the subject, then this will be of interest. If you want to have read every book that has been written about the SAS, then this isn't a waste of time. But there is little new or insightful. David Stirling, the founder and driving figure behind the regiment, comes over in this book as a bit of an upper class clown. There's only so much that can be blamed on bad luck, repeated cock-ups suggest a more deep seated problem. But Stirling obviously had some charm and definitely had the all-too essential social connections required for a thriving career in the British Army. I think Macintyre's claim that Claude Auchinlek, the British commander in the Middle East who gave Stirling the go-ahead, was a Scot is stretching the truth more than somewhat. And how and why would someone from County Tyrone move Northern Ireland after Irish Independence? Macintyre also fails to explore just how vicious the man who put the SAS on a firmer footing after Stirling was mercifully captured, Paddy Mayne, actually was. Ambushing and nearly beating a fellow officer to death in the dark of night hardly comes into the category of brawling. Macintytre is also disingenuous when he says that the murder charge against Major Roy Farran failed due to a lack of "admissible" evidence. The evidence disallowed included two confessions to the murder of a Jewish teenager in 1947 Palestine. So, in summary, this is a good but flawed book for those who have not read much about the SAS.

Read more: Book Briefing

Historic Capture

The September/October edition of History Scotland magazine included a two page article I wrote looking at who really captured a French general in 1808 and why the credit might have been given to another member of the Highland Light Infantry. The official version of General Brennier's capture by the HLI at Vimeiro has gone down in British Army legend, "We are soldiers, Sir, not plunderers",  but what ordinary members of the regiment had to say, or did not say, about the episode paints a less flattering picture of it and its aftermath. As the November/December issue is now available, here is the article The Real Mackay?

Pension Misery Highlighted

The Dorchester Review , a leading Canadian magazine when it comes to history, is carrying an article I wrote about British Army pensioners, many who served under the Duke of Wellington's command, who were caught up in a disastrous scheme which involved them giving up their pension entitlement in exchange for land in the British Colonies or United States. I became interested in what happened to the so-called Commuted Pensioners after realizing one of the main suspects as a contributor to Vicissitudes in the Life of a Scottish Soldier had been lured to Canada under the scheme. 

Double Bill

The latest edition of Canada's Dorchester Review features not one but two articles from Paul - Churchill in the Trenches and Drug Store Commandos. The first link takes you to an extended version of the article which appeared in the DR about Winston Churchill's time in command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on Western Front while the second is an article about the Lovat Scouts training in the Canadian Rockies as mountain warfare specialists.

Canadian Connection with With Wellington in the Peninsula?

The British Canadian newspaper ran an article in its May edition about a possible connection between one of the soldiers in my new book With Wellington in the Peninsula and a disastrous government scheme to settle ex-soldiers in Canada while depriving them of their pensions.

Irish Terrorism in Canada

In between working on a major project, I wrote another article for the Dorchester Review here in Canada. The attempt by terrorists to destroy a Canadian canal lock in 1900 is often dismissed as being the work of bunglers. But a closer look reveals a tale of murder and links successful bombing of the House of Commons more than a decade earlier. Few seem to know that one of the gang was found dead with a bullet through his heart. Attempts by US politicians, including President William Taft, to persuade the Canadian authorities to release the terrorists is better known.  Dynamite Dillon

Also see - Dorchester Review

Canadian Interest

The Dorchester Review, based in Ottawa, Canada, recently published an article I wrote about one of the more eccentric of the British regiments - Victoria's Royal Canadians. Most Canadian historians seem unaware of that a regiment was raised in Canada to fight in the Indian Mutiny.


The Winter Issue of the Scottish American Military Society's magazine The Patriot  contains a two page interview with yours truly. I thought the least I could do in return was give them a plug. At a later date, I'll see about either linking to the article or posting a version of the interview on the SMD site.

Double Spread

It’s been a busy few weeks. Last Saturday (Nove. 3) the Scottish Daily Mail published a two page spread under my byline about the 2/10th Royal Scots campaign against the Bolsheviks in northern Russia 1918-1919 titled "The Tsar's Fighting Invalids". I’ve found a link to a site which carries the article but before I post it I want to make sure I’m not sending you somewhere you might regret going. The Daily Mail article let the cat out of the bag when it comes to the fact that I’m working on a new book – working title, Jock and Rorie – Tales of Scottish Soldiers. Read about the Forgotten War

Read more: Paul's News

Scottish Military Disasters has been launched as an e-book. And it’s now improved.
Preparing the book in e-book format offered the chance to correct some minor errors.
“I wouldn’t say it’s worth someone who has the print version going out and buying the e-book,” said author Paul Cowan.
“But in preparing the e-book we’ve corrected a couple of little irritating misprints and one mistake that probably only annoys me and a couple of my relatives.”
The book is one of the first from the Neil Wilson Publishing catalogue to be released as an e-book.
“Neil’s stable of authors includes such giants as Nigel Tranter, so this is a real honour for me,” said Cowan.
“This will make the book far more accessible to readers in Scotland and around the World – and also in certain countries far more affordable.
“I’ve found where it is reasonably priced overseas, it’s been selling like hotcakes.”
Glasgow-based Neil Wilson said the move into e-books was as a result of public demand.
Wilson teamed up with the respected e-book team at the Faber Factory for the conversion to the new format which will make Scottish Military Disasters available on a variety of devices, including most e-readers and mobile phones.
“We will also go online with Apple soon,” he added.
For details of how to buy the e-book version –

Neil Wilson Publishing


The debate over whether Scotland produces some of the finest fighting men in the World could go on for ever. What is certain is that pride in the military is woven into the Scottish psyche and that that pride has been ruthlessly exploited by the British Establishment.
In the popular imagination the Scottish soldier is a kilted infantryman. The infantry are the men who go through the meat grinder in almost every war and Scotland has provided the British Empire with more than its fair share of infantry. In the fighting after D-Day in 1944 a British study suggested that although the infantry made up only 25% of the troops involved; they suffered 71% of the casualties.
(While I can’t put my hand on my heart and say my research for Scottish Military Disasters points to the Scots having the worse military record in Europe, for most of recorded history it hasn’t been very spectacular. People remember Bannockburn because it is one of the few battles against the English that the Scots won. Even when the English were heavily outnumbered, at battles such as Flodden in 1513 and Dunbar in 1650, they still managed to win. Many English, and Irish and Welsh soldiers for that matter, regard their Scots counterparts as a bunch of blowhards who write cheques with their mouths that their battlefield performance fail to honour. The counter-argument goes that the Scots go that extra mile to back up their boasting.)
But where does this Scottish martial pride which encouraged so many young Scots into the infantry during two world wars come from?

Read more: The Great Kiltie Con

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